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PORTAGE PATHWAYS: Defense Day drew thousands to Kent in 1941

By Roger J. Di Paoio | Record-Courier Editor Published: October 16, 2016 4:00 AM
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Portage County wasn't at war yet, but there was no question that it was in a wartime mode.

In Ravenna, the sprawling arsenal had begun production of munitions and was providing employment to thousands.

In Kent, a number of former manufacturing plants -- including the Gougler factories -- were converting from peacetime production to defense contracting.

A little more than a year earlier, a Peace Mass had drawn thousands to DePeyster Field on Labor Day 1940. The thousands filling the streets of Kent on Sunday, Oct. 19, 1941, were there for an entirely different reason -- National Defense Day, an affirmation of preparedness for the war that seemed to be inevitable.

"Kent became a hub of Main Street American patriotism," Keith Spriggel of the Kent Courier-Tribune wrote, as thousands "hung from the rafters and leaned out of every store window to watch breathlessly a five-mile long parade and subsequent rally on the university campus which dramatized what Portage County is doing in this national emergency."

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The two-hour parade -- "a great show," in Spriggel's words -- stretched the length of Main Street. It featured 100 floats, 30 bands and marching units from throughout Northeastern Ohio.

A unit of the Royal Canadian Air Force was among the marchers, along with its 104-member marching band. Air Marshal Harold Edwards of the RCAF assured the crowd, "We will be glad to see that your bombs made in Portage County reach their proper destination."

The crowd was the largest Kent had ever seen -- estimated at between 20,000 and 75,000. (The upper range was probably an overoptimistic exaggeration, given the fact Portage County's entire population was roughly 45,000.)

"The whir of machinery from Kent's defense loaded industries was silenced for the day, but there was plenty of activity from the crowd of visitors that started coming early in the morning and kept coming late in the afternoon," Courier reporter M.A. Wolcott wrote. "It was a happy, jostling crowd that lined every vantage point from Elm Street on South Water to the edge of the city on East Main Street."

The festivities began with an 8 a.m. flag raising at the Kent Elks home on East Main Street (on the present site of the Portage County Municipal Courthouse.) The parade began at 2 p.m., assembling in four sections and moving from South Water Street into downtown Kent, then up East Main Street to the Kent State campus.

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The marchers included representatives of civic, service, fraternal and labor organizations as well as the armed forces.

The Hunkin-Conkey Construction Co., which built the Ravenna Arsenal, was among more than 30 floats from the arsenal project. Bombs produced there were displayed during the parade. Hunkin-Conkey also underwrote part of the travel costs for the Canadian parade unit. (The RCAF band was busy during its stay in Kent. In addition to marching in the parade, it also performed at the arsenal and played at halftime for the Kent State football game.)

One of the more notable floats was constructed by Ferry Machine Co. in Kent. It featured a large cage enclosing the Axis dictators of Germany, Italy and Japan, with a sign across the top: "Dictators Talk Too Much."

The parade concluded at Kent State, where a rally was held in front of the Rockwell Library. Speakers included U.S. Rep. Dow Harter and Major Gen. Robert S. Beightler, commander of Ohio's 37th Division, who assured the crowd that the American soldier was "everything his famous forefathers were, and then some."

The National Defense Day observance also included a defense blackout conducted by the American Legion the night before the parade. Residents knew only that it would occur sometime between 7 and 10 p.m., and that they were expected to "black out" any source of light in the city. For the most part, they cooperated.

"Kent's blackout meant much more than just to show what the town looked like in total darkness," the Courier-Tribune reported. "For the first time in our defense effort, it gave every man, woman and child a feeling of participation. The darkness was a leveler."

"Kent is ready," the article concluded.

Less than two months later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the nation was at war.

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